Down the Rabbit hole
Darin Strauss pens an Updike-ian novel about a medical scandal.
Wed Jun 11 2008
DON’T BOX ME IN Strauss moves beyond historical fiction and into the present.
In 2000, Darin Strauss published his first novel, Chang and Eng, a knockout about the original Siamese twins and their circus-freak fame in the 1800s. Seven years later, the author became the father of twin sons. The boys arrived last October, healthy but four weeks early, just as the author was wrapping up his third book, More than It Hurts You, a tale with a propulsive first chapter set largely in the pediatrics ward of a Long Island hospital.
“That’s the weird thing about these books,” says Strauss, 38. “I wrote about Siamese twins and then I had twins. Then I was in the neonatal ICU reading the proofs of this book that involves an ICU.” We’re at Barbès, a Park Slope watering hole not far from the author’s Windsor Terrace apartment, and he warms to the topic of writing his own fate into existence with the giddiness of a dad ready to enjoy a rare evening out. “My next book should be about a guy who wins the National Book Award and the lottery in the same day.”
Whatever the odds of Strauss, also the author of The Real McCoy, winning a jackpot, smart money says that More than It Hurts You will be on many of this year’s best-of lists. The subject is Munchausen by proxy (the syndrome in which caregivers induce medical problems in their children) and a tabloid-ready scandal that follows a diagnosis of it in a well-scrubbed corner of the author’s native Nassau County. The characters include a smooth ad exec, his anxious wife and the black female doctor who doesn’t trust them with their own eight-month-old. The project is admirably ambitious, with Strauss, heretofore a writer of historical fiction, declaring that the novel is an attempt to capture contemporary life “the way Updike did in the Rabbit novels,” while also striving for a Saul Bellow flavor of all-American prose: “language that’s low and high at the same time.”
What’s more, the book—at points a careful examination of race of gender—arrives after a primary season that’s pushed those topics to the front of the national conversation. “I had black friends read it to make sure that it was, you know—that it was authentic,” Strauss says. “The way that Newsweek gives stories the ‘black read.’ ” He owes his familiarity with the magazine—and with racial firestorms in the media—to the fact that his wife, Susannah Meadows, is a writer there. “It was really good research for me to watch her on Fox News and MSNBC during the Duke Lacrosse scandal,” he continues. “She was on 35 times—I know because she got a $100 check for every appearance.”
When Strauss and Meadows first met, she was the assistant at GQ in charge of rejecting his stories, and he, after graduating from Tufts and NYU’s M.F.A. program, was supporting his fiction habit by working for a financial technology newsletter (“I wrote three articles a week without understanding any of it,” he recalls). That chapter closed with the success of Chang and Eng, a novel sold to Dutton by John Hodgman, onetime writer of the “Ask a Former Professional Literary Agent” column in McSweeney’s, current Daily Show personality and Strauss’s longtime card partner. “Darin’s not a very good poker player,” Hodgman says. “His bluffs are laughable because he’s emotionally kind of transparent. The only thing you can’t see in him is the secret place where his fiction comes from.” The one person who might have some access to this area is the actor and director Gary Oldman, who hopes to turn Chang and Eng into a movie and is currently working on the screenplay. “He called me the other day and said, ‘There’s a comma in the third paragraph of page 54. What does that mean?’ ” the author says. “He’s writing most of the script, and I sort of tinker with it.”
Strauss, meanwhile, is conserving his energies for blogging about his 22-city book tour for Newsweek’s website, a trickier assignment than you might think. “There’s nothing worse than someone complaining about their book tour,” he says, going on to tell old horror stories about hailstorms in Chicago and an empty reading in Denver. “It felt very Spinal Tap,” he adds. Listening to him, it becomes clear that if the right author is telling the story, there’s nothing better than someone complaining about their book tour. Among his many gifts, Darin Strauss has the skill to turn your sympathies up to 11.
More than It Hurts You (Dutton, $24.95) is out now. Strauss reads at Barnes & Noble Tribeca on Jun 19.